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The Travelling classroom bridging the digital divide in Benin

“The idea isn’t to make computer scientists, but just to make children want to use digital technology.”

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Interior of the BloLab - (Photo by Yanick Folly / AFP)

School was out, but on an afternoon in rural Benin, 11-year-old Ambroise rushed to a tree-shaded parking lot, his day’s learning not yet done.

Parked beneath the cola trees was a lorry trailer loaded with computers — the kind of technology that few students in the West African country had ever seen, much less touched.

Designed by BloLab, a non-profit group based in Benin’s largest city Cotonou, the 13-metre (43-foot) trailer is powered by 12 solar panels and equipped with enough laptops to give rural students a chance to familiarise themselves with computers, which most families cannot afford.

Schoolchildren from Avrankou-Houeze school attend a training in the BloLab container at Avrankou city hall, in Avrankou, south of Benin. Photo by Yanick Folly / AFP)

“When the teacher told us that we’d start having computer class again, I quickly finished my work because I was so happy,” said Ambroise, from eastern Benin’s Avrankou district.

In his class of 48, only four pupils had even touched a computer before. Ambroise had used one at a photocopy shop, while the other three had a sibling who owned one.

In Benin, the digital divide is not just a concept but a reality, said BloLab founder Medard Agbayazon.

“In the towns, many people have technology, there are cybercafes. But in villages it is rare to find a computer or a smartphone,” he told AFP.

Benin’s internet penetration rate is just 42.2 percent, the Regulatory Authority for Electronic and Postal Communication said in a report last year.

Schoolchildren from Avrankou-Houeze school attend a BloLab training in a container with the founder of this non-profit group Medard Agbayazon at Avrankou city hall, in Avrankou, south of Benin. (Photo by Yanick Folly / AFP)

Among these, almost everyone (96 percent) used a mobile phone for accessing the web.

These are the conditions which spawned the idea for a mobile classroom furnished with desks as well as fans to ward off the tropical heat.

BloLab pays to rent a cab to two the trailer, which was donated by Swiss-based charity African Puzzle.

The classroom, which has visited two communities since last August, stays in one place for a month at a time, providing five two-hour computer skills classes per week, free of charge.

It is a drop in the ocean for Avrankou, which has a population of 128,000 scattered around 59 villages served by 88 primary schools.

“The idea isn’t to make computer scientists, but just to make children want to use digital technology. It’s a tool that can solve real problems in everyday life,” Agbayazon said.

As one group of pupils practises using a word processor on the trailer’s laptops, another works in a corner of the town hall, learning to build computers in jerrycans with recycled components from obsolete machines or donated by businesses and charities in Cotonou.

Schoolchildren from Avrankou-Houeze school enter the BloLab container to attend a training, at Avrankou city hall, in Avrankou, south of Benin, on January 18, 2019. – Designed by BloLab, a non-profit group, the 13-metre (43-foot) trailer is powered by 12 solar panels and equipped with enough laptops to give students in the countryside a chance to familiarise themselves with computers, which most families cannot afford. (Photo by Yanick Folly / AFP)

The students are already familiar with terms like “motherboard”, “hard drive”, and “power supply” from a previous lesson.

One of two trainers, Raoul Letchede, shows the kids the components they will use to assemble a makeshift computer in a 25-litre (6.6-gallon) yellow plastic container.

These home-fashioned machines must be hooked up to a computer screen to work.

“This lesson familiarises them with the inside of a computer, demystifies how it works, and shows them that they can make their own even without much money,” Letchede said.

One rule of the mobile classroom is that all the software used must be free to the public.

“We have to promote this practice because we don’t have the money here to buy the licences,” said Agbayazon. “We don’t want to encourage children to hack.”

The approach impressed local official Apollinaire Oussou Lio on a recent visit to the class.

“This is an opportunity to no longer be a slave to software from the big multinationals,” Lio said, adding he would himself like to be more computer savvy.

Schoolchildren from Avrankou-Houeze school attend a training in the BloLab container at Avrankou city hall, in Avrankou, south of Benin. (Photo by Yanick Folly / AFP)

“I’d also like to be trained,” he said, citing a wish to learn to use geo-location to better preserve the surrounding forests.

Teacher Guillaume Gnonlonfoun is happy for his students. The school where he works has no computer, and he himself first used one at university.

Many of Gnonlonfoun’s colleagues have never used a PC, and the BloLab class is open to them as well.

“These days, nothing can be done without digital technology,” he told AFP. 

“So that we don’t end up being the illiterates of this millennium, it is essential that we have equipment.”

But until real computers arrive in the community, pupils and teachers will have no option but to build their own.

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African tech start-up, Andela lays off 400 junior developers

Andela is ending its entry-level training programmes for tech developers in Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda

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African tech start-up, Andela lays off 400 junior developers

Major African tech start-up, Andela sacked hundreds of its staff this week — the majority from Nigeria — in one of the largest layoffs in the continent’s budding tech industry.

The start-up, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars from investors including Facebook and tennis star, Serena Williams, laid off more than 250 junior software developers in Nigeria and Uganda, with up to 170 trainees in Kenya “impacted”, it said in a statement on Tuesday evening.

Andela is ending its entry-level training programmes for tech developers in the three countries. Training will only continue in Rwanda out of its four bases in Africa — in a major departure from its business model.

“Our initial strategy was to identify high-potential talent on the African continent, train them in software development,” co-founder and CEO, Jeremy Johnson said in a statement.

“It’s also become clear, however, that the majority of the demand is for more experienced talent,” he said.  

The company which has over 1,500 engineers, trains talented developers in Africa and outsources them to some 200 tech companies in US tech haven Silicon Valley and around the world.

African tech start-up, Andela lays off 400 junior developers

Yet, the US, its largest market, has seen a growth of junior web developers, decreasing demand from Africa.

The majority of its engineers are junior level, yet it will now focus on training and hiring experienced staff.

Andela was founded in 2014 — its name inspired by former South African President, Nelson Mandela — to fill a shortage of skilled software developers and invest in Africa’s best minds.

“Brilliance is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not”, its founders have said, seeking to challenge common perception that there is a lack of technical professionals in Africa. 

The start-up has won mass plaudits across the continent and caught the attention of high profile investors, with Mark Zuckerberg and former US Vice President Al Gore key backers. 

In January, Andela raised $100 million from venture capital funds, bringing its total funding to $ 180 million — cementing its status as one of the most highly regarded tech firms in Africa. 

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Telemedicine revolution saving lives in Ivory Coast

The fledgling technology has long been championed by health advocates for rural economies.

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Telemedicine revolution in saving lives in Ivory Coast

Every time Catherine Coulibaly’s 19-year-old son had to make a routine appointment with the cardiologist for his heart condition, she gritted her teeth as she silently counted the financial cost.

It wasn’t just the hospital fee — there was the transport, food and accommodation, too, all of it amounting to a hefty burden for an Ivorian family on a modest income.

But thanks to telemedicine – consultations that doctors conduct through the internet or by phone – this cost is now a fading memory. 

Her son can book an appointment at a telemedicine facility in a nearby town in northern Ivory Coast.

There, he is attached to monitoring machines which send the data sent to Bouake University Hospital in the centre of the country, where it is scrutinised by a heart doctor.

The fledgling technology has long been championed by health advocates for rural economies.

Ivory Coast has become an African testbed for it, thanks to a project linking the Bouake hospital’s cardiac department with health centres in several northern towns, some of which are a four-hour drive away. 

Telemedicine “caused a sigh of relief for the population of Bouake, Boundiali, Korhogo, everyone,” says Auguste Dosso, president of the “Little Heart” association, which helps families with cardiac health issues.

Some 45 percent of the Ivorian population live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank’s latest estimate in 2017. And the minimum monthly wage — not always respected — is only around $100, or 90 euros. 

Heart disease surging

The pioneer behind the scheme is cardiologist Florent Diby, who set up an association called Wake Up Africa.

In Ivory Coast, heart disease, diabetes and other “lifestyle” ailments are surging, Diby explained. 

“Urbanisation is making people more sedentary, and there’s the rise in tobacco consumption, changes in diet, stress,” Diby said.

Three decades ago, only around one in eight of the Ivorian population had high blood pressure — now the figure is one in four, on a par with parts of Western Europe.

But in Ivory Coast — and across Africa — well-equipped cardiology units are rare.

“Ninety percent of heart attacks can be diagnosed by telemedicine, so for us cardiologists it’s a revolutionary technology,” said Diby.

The beauty of the telemedicine scheme is that neither the doctor nor the patient has to travel far. 

The cardiac patient is hooked up to the electrocardiogram (ECG) and other diagnostic machines with the help of a technician in a local health centre, which is connected to a computer in Bouake’s University Hospital. 

The cardiologist there can then see the results in real time, provide a diagnosis and prescribe treatment. 

The five-year-old project has already linked 10 health centres to the seven cardiologists at Bouake, enabling 4,800 patients in other towns to receive consultations by telemedicine each year. The goal is to expand this to 20 sites, doubling the intake.

Expertise France, the French public agency for international technical assistance, subsidises up to 185,000 euros of the network, which pays for equipment such as computers, artificial intelligence software and internet connections. 

Diby is now calling for telemedicine to be expanded in other medical fields such as neurology and psychiatry, not just in the Ivory Coast, but across West Africa too. 

That opinion is shared by other experts. Sixty per cent of Africans live in rural areas, where shortages of doctors are usually acute.

But numerous hurdles need to be overcome, especially investment in computers and access to the internet, according to a 2013 analysis published by the US National Library of Medicine. 

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“Okada” Wars: How Nigeria’s Uber-style motorbikes are competing for Lagos routes

First to launch was Gokada in 2018, pioneering an Uber-style system for two-wheeled transport

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"Okada" Wars: How Nigeria's Uber-style motorbikes are competing for Lagos routes
ORide driver arrives on motorbike taxi to attend meeting at company headquaters, Ikeja in Lagos, on August 19, 2019. - A growing number of ride hailing services have stepped into the chaos -- bringing order to the "okada" motorbike taxis that have long whizzed perilously around Lagos. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Banker Yemi Adegbola used to leave his home in Lagos before 4 am each day, but would still arrive late to work because of the notorious traffic in Nigeria’s biggest city.

Now, he says he has “dumped his car” for one of a raft of new motorbike ride-hailing apps that developers hope can speed up journeys for the roughly 20 million residents of the economic capital. 

For years, the jams — known locally as “go-slows” — have been a nightmare for Lagosians. 

Potholed roads, reckless driving and too many cars have helped turn the daily commute into an ordeal that often lasts for hours. 

People miss appointments and business suffers as one of Africa’s largest markets grinds to a standstill.

"Okada" Wars: How Nigeria's Uber-style motorbikes are competing for Lagos routes
Regular motorcycle taxis “okada” queue for passengers without helmet or kits for safety unlike Uber-style branded motorbike taxis in Lagos, on September 4, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

READ: Facebook to curb fake news using Yoruba and Igbo languages

Sensing an opportunity, a growing number of ride-hailing services have stepped into the chaos — bringing order to the “okada” motorbike taxis that have long whizzed perilously around Lagos.

First to launch was Gokada in 2018, pioneering an Uber-style system for two-wheeled transport that had already been successfully rolled out by firms elsewhere.

It has since been followed by other operators like Maxokada and ORide — and the competitors are looking to overtake each other with better technology, lower prices and more services.

‘Open market’ –

Before these startups, Lagosians in a hurry had to put their faith in the army of unregulated “okada” riders weaving hazardously through the traffic.

Often untrained and unfamiliar with the city, they were seen as dangerous and blamed by the police for a rise in petty crime.

The authorities clamped down and in 2012 banned the 100cc bikes from 475 roads and highways around the city.

This year, some 3,000 motorcycles were impounded and destroyed for violating the restrictions, police said.

The ride-hailing apps provide a striking difference. 

Their drivers are decked out in bibs and helmets in company colours, carry safety kits with them and have more powerful bikes that can make longer trips. 

ORide drivers park motorbike taxis to attend meeting at company headquarters, Ikeja in Lagos, on August 19, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Passengers are charged an Uber-style tariff, and no longer have to resort to haggling each time they hail a ride.

READ: MTN Nigeria launches mobile money transfer service

A traditional “okada” ride can cost between ₦50 and several hundred naira — depending on the distance, area and the mood of the driver.

New entrant, ORide kick-started its services in May and is looking to tap into the abundant opportunities with 3,000 trained drivers. 

The firm — part of the OPay online payment service — is looking to expand operations as part of a $50 million push and already works in six other cities in Nigeria.

“It’s an open market in which everybody has something to offer. There’s so much to cover in Nigeria,” Iniabasi Akpan, OPay country manager, told reporters. 

Unlike other players which allow users to hail a ride both online or on the streets, passengers can only pay via the OPay app, developed by Norway’s Opera Software.

The firm has comprehensive insurance that covers both riders and passengers and secures its drivers with asset financing contracts that ensure they pay back the cost of their new bikes in 18 months.

Bumps in the road –

Overall, the two-wheeler taxi market is forecast to reach $9 billion worldwide by 2021, according to India-based Tech Sci. 

But it has not been all smooth riding since the apps launched.

Accidents remain unavoidable in the confusion of Nigeria’s roads, online apps have faltered, drivers have looked to inflate fares and corrupt officials still prey on road-users. 

Gokada in May announced over $5 million in new funding and said it hoped to branch out into other forms of transport and eventually push outside Nigeria.

"Okada" Wars: How Nigeria's Uber-style motorbikes are competing for Lagos routes

But last month, the firm shut down for two weeks after its chief executive, Fahim Saleh encountered some of the navigational problems when a short journey ended up taking much longer. 

The driver he ordered took 15 minutes to pick him up, admitted he wasn’t using GPS and then set off on a circuitous route to the destination.   

READ: Sierra Leone to launch National blockchain Identification system

“How could I be the CEO of Gokada, the company that pioneered motorcycle ride-hailing in Nigeria and be experiencing this?” Saleh wrote in an online post. 

“I told the pilot to pull over to the side of the road, I would hop over the median and wait for an Uber. ‘This is what it has come to,’ I thought.”

The disappointment chimed with the gripes of some Nigerian users who have complained of navigation problems while using the various apps and accuse drivers of deliberately taking longer routes to increase fares.

Firms have sought ways around the issues.

Gokada re-launched its 2.0 service with a fresh fleet of bikes after giving drivers more training and incorporating features like helmets with inbuilt mobile headsets.

ORide has a monitoring unit set up to track its drivers. 

Despite the bumps in the road, riders told reporters the apps were helping them bolster their business and offering a key lifeline.

"Okada" Wars: How Nigeria's Uber-style motorbikes are competing for Lagos routes
Opay workers sit to monitor riders in the field at the company’s control room, Ikeja in Lagos, on August 30, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

“This scheme has taken many out of poverty by creating jobs,” ORide driver Johnson Onipede told reporters, sitting on his light green bike as he waited for his next ride.

Onipede said his main headache remained one familiar to all Lagosians — venal local thieves.

He said riders needed help getting small gangs of thugs, known as “agberos” or “area boys”, to stop their extortion and harassment.

“Both the government and company should help us to stop the agberos and area boys because they are making life unbearable for us.”

READ: The brain behind West Africa’s premier smart card manufacturers

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